Every edition of the modern Olympics, beginning with the first in 1896 in Athens, Greece, has been dubbed historic. The reason is simple. In each case the host city and national government of the host country does whatever is deemed necessary to ensure that the world watching gets a good look at all that the country should be recognised for.
Historians tell us that in the early editions of the modern Olympics the host city was encouraged to host a World’s Fair in tandem with the Games to showcase the very best of the nation. Unfortunately, as the Games grew in size and complexity the sheer cost was enough to pose major challenges to the national budgets of host countries. Many could not sustain the additional cost of hosting a World’s Fair at the same time.
Over time the host cities have instead organised what is referred to as a Cultural Olympiad, where sport art pieces of all media are showcased for the duration of the Olympic Games in the host city.
Olympic Games aficionados enjoy researching and speaking fondly about the different editions of the Olympic Games. Each one makes a very special contribution to the rich history of the Olympic Movement.
It is never only about the outstanding performances of the athletes. It is about the ambience created, not just by the host but by every participating nation. It is about the sharing of experiences that takes place. It is about the conviviality. It is about the passion that drives the spectators as much as the athletes in competition. It is about getting to now another country in great depth.
As the London Olympics gets going today the world would watch with great expectations that this edition, the 30th in the Summer series, would be as historic as any of those that have gone before.
London and the Olympic Games
London first hosted the Olympic Games in 1908. This was the fourth edition of the Games. At the time the Games were still experiencing teething problems and the British could do no better. The Games were drawn out over a four-month period, from 27 April through to 31 October. Originally scheduled to take place in the Italian city of Rome, the Games had to be shifted due to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius.
According to the history, the 1908 Games were known for having been the first occasion at which the march pass took place as an official component of the Olympic Games.
The shape and size of the running track had yet to be standardized, and the 68,000-seater stadium in Shepherds Bush held a 660yd track making 3 laps to the mile (www.guy-sports.com).
Politics reared its head almost immediately. The USA team spotted that there was no American flag among the national flags decorating the stadium for the opening ceremonies. As a result USA flag-bearer Martin Sheridan responded by refusing to dip the Stars and Stripes as he passed King Edward VII’s box in the parade of athletes. ‘This flag dips to no earthly king,’ Sheridan said… Finland was still ruled by Russia, who told their flag-bearer to carry a Russian flag, the furious Finns decided to march without any flag rather than carry the Russian flag (www.guy-sports.com)..
The next occasion on which the British hosted the Games was in 1948 – the
14th edition – held during the period 29 July to 14 August. The second World War had caused the cancellation of the 12th and 13th editions of the Games. While the world remembers the historic achievements of Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands and the astonishing performance of the Czech, Emile Zatopek, in the 10,000m, the Caribbean remembers it for the achievements of Jamaica’s track and field athletes. Herb McKinley was highly favoured to win the 400m but had to settle for second place behind his compatriot, Arthur Wint, on the day of the finals. He placed fourth in the 200m.
The Jamaican athletes signalled the ushering in of a new era in the Olympics, the readiness of the Caribbean to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world in the Olympic Games.
The Olympic Games
It is well known that despite all the plaudits various editions of the Olympic Games has received through the years many a host nation has been left in dire financial straights following the conclusion of the event.
While many countries appeared only too eager to encourage cities to bid to host the Games they had different reasons for doing so.
Hitler’s Germany may well have wanted an opportunity to showcase the presumed superior qualities of his ‘super race’ versus the rest of the world. Of course, the achievements of Jesse Owens may well have dampened his hopes.
The Soviet Union certainly desired to show the world the tremendous achievements of the socialist ideas put to work in the societies under its control when they bid for and hosted the Summer Olympics of 1980.
The Chinese used the Olympics of 2008 in Beijing as its ‘coming out party’ showing the world the immense progress it had made since the peasant revolution led by Chairman Mao. While much of the western world argue that the Chinese have in effect adopted the capitalist approach to development the latter respond that they have been able to maintain their own brand of socialism and support it by the retention of State control in the main sectors of the economy. The Olympics of 2008 therefore was primarily intended to have the world focused for three weeks in particular on the rapidly modernising China.
London may well want to show the world that it is somehow reinventing itself and justify its leadership role in international affairs.
It should also be noted that prior to the Summer Olympics of Los Angeles, USA, in 1984, there was little financial success for any country associated with hosting the sporting spectacle. Indeed, the Games often left many cities financially embarrassed and the governments of the respective countries committing years of valuable resources to paying the bill.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the custodians of the International Olympic Movement and by extension, the Olympic Games, came away from the Games with little to show by way of financial rewards, prior to 1984.
Perhaps not enough credit is given in global discourse to the role played by Peter Uberroth, the man who headed the Organising Committee of the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984.
Uberroth is an outstanding businessman and he brought all of his managerial expertise to bear on his leadership of the Organising Committee in preparation for and the actual hosting of the Games of 1984.
Uberroth’s approach was to look well beyond the Games of 1984. He wanted to impact not just the Games over which he was in charge but to facilitate the event’s sustainability in the future.
It was Uberroth who brought forward the idea of attract and contracting global sponsors that would commit to the IOC significant financial resources in return for carrying the organisation’s brand, in four-year cycles. This allowed the IOC to be guaranteed significant funding over the long term.
The Games of 1984 also witnessed the introduction of television rights to cover the event.
So it was that 1984 became and remains to this day an historic watershed in the International Olympic Movement for its innovation in respect of sports marketing and television rights. The IOC therefore benefitted since then from a certain measure of financial stability.
Unwittingly however, the financial security may well have transformed the organisation to such an extent that it became a monolith with the leadership unfortunately at times appearing to consider itself among the cadre of global political leaders, perhaps all too often, moving away from the ideals of the very Movement they lead.
It was also the financial security that gave impetus to the firm establishment fo Olympic Solidarity, the development arm of the IOC that offers National Olympic Committees (NOC) around the world financial support to aid in the development of the latter’s athletes in the different Olympic Sports.
London has hosted the modern Olympics twice before and on each occasion many thought the event was spectacular.
The English have always sought to put on a good show for the entire global sporting community.
London is no Beijing.
Following the conclusion of the Beijing Olympics and his receipt of the Olympic flag., Sebastian Coe, head of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), let the Olympic and global communities know that London had no intention of competing with Beijing in respect of the kind of cultural spectacle that were the highlights of the Opening and Closing ceremonies.
He was also clear that London and the United Kingdom did not have the financial resources to place at the disposal of the Organising Committee as was the case with the Chinese government and the Beijing Olympics.
In a sense, Coe appealed for the international community to understand that we should not attempt to compare different editions of the Olympic Games if only for the reasons mentioned earlier in this Column. Each country has a different set of reasons behind its bid.
Of course, Coe’s appeal will mean very little as the media and indeed all participants tend almost inevitably to make comparisons. There will be plenty comparisons over the period of the Games and the leadership of LOCOG must be hoping that at the end of it all, their performance would be judged most favourably.
Everyone hopes that London will deliver a successful Olympic Games. The controversies abound, yet it is believed that once the Games begin, these will all be forgotten as they lose any significance when compared to the performances of the athletes in the sports competitions over the period.